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Difficult journey to visit a Chinese human rights lawyer

By Steven Jiang, CNN
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Chinese activist truly free?
  • CNN crew attempts to visit Chen Guangcheng, a prominent rights activist
  • Guards throw rocks at car after refusing crew access to Dongshigu Village
  • Chen, 39, has been confined to his home since last September
  • Imprisoned for "willfully damaging property" in August 2006

Dongshigu Village, China (CNN) -- As our taxicab navigated the winding narrow dirt paths tucked between farm fields, the scenery outside looked typical of rural China.

Melting snow dripped from tiled roofs of gray brick houses; red scrolls with calligraphy celebrating the just-past lunar New Year adorned wooden doors left ajar; and children's laughter occasionally broke the quiet on a lazy winter's afternoon.

All the peace and tranquility came to a screeching halt when a burly man stopped our car at an impromptu checkpoint leading to Dongshigu Village.

"What are you here for?" he demanded.

"To see someone in the village," our driver volunteered an answer for us.

"Not allowed and leave now!" he ordered, his hand pounding on the windshield.

Getting out of the car along with correspondent Stan Grant, I asked the man who he was and why the village was off-limits.

Ignoring our questions and noticing cameraman Brad Olson filming, the man -- appearing in his early 50s and wearing a black satin coat printed with auspicious Chinese patterns -- reached for his walkie-talkie and signaled another plainclothes guard nearby to stop Brad.

Those people stand at the four corners of my house, spy on my family and monitor what we do.
--Chen Guangcheng, human rights activist
  • Chen Guangcheng
  • China

As he requested backup, I demanded to know the reason we were barred from the village while Stan explained on camera what was happening. The "big guy" kept shoving Stan away from the checkpoint, as his partner knocked Brad's camera over.

When we tried to walk toward the village again, the two guards picked up rocks -- large and small -- from the ground and hurled them at us and the car, as they yelled "get out" and "no filming." Some of the rocks fell dangerously close to us.

The guards would not say why we were not allowed in, but the place we wanted to visit would have been just another faceless Chinese village in the eastern province of Shandong -- too small to be found on Google Maps -- if not for one local resident.

Chen Guangcheng, a prominent rights activist, has been confined to his home in Dongshigu Village since he was released from prison last September. In a home video posted on YouTube by U.S.-based rights group China Aid, the blind and self-taught lawyer described dire conditions of living under close watch 24 hours a day.

"Those people stand at the four corners of my house, spy on my family and monitor what we do," Chen, sporting sunglasses and a black jacket, said in the video. "They installed floodlights and surveillance cameras around my house."

Chen, 39, also said that vehicles surround his home, and his land and mobile phone lines have been cut off. He added that authorities threaten anyone in the community who attempts to help him -- or anyone who attempts to visit him.

Activists said Chen and his wife were beaten after the video was made public and that he was denied medical treatment.

CNN could not independently verify the claims. Meanwhile local authorities have not responded to our repeated requests for comment.

Chen first gained attention in 1998 when he led farmers in his county to protest against a river-polluting paper mill and persuaded international donors to fund a deep well for drinking water as an alternative to the contaminated river water.

He later brought class-action lawsuits on behalf of what he called victims of abusive practices in the enforcement of China's family-planning laws, which limit most couples to one child. China denied Chen's claims.

After his years of activism, a local court sentenced Chen to four years and three months in prison in August 2006 for "willfully damaging property" and disrupting traffic in a protest, charges his supporters called preposterous.

Though he's now home, it appears he's not free. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has championed Chen's case. Last month, she called for his release.

As our efforts to see him show, gaining access to Chen is all but impossible. As our taxicab escaped the flying rocks, our nervous driver was convinced we would be chased and caught by other guards.

When our car finally got back on the main road, we drove past the main path to Dongshigu Village and spotted about half-a-dozen men guarding the entrance. When they saw our cameras, some of them bent over to pick up rocks.

CNN's Jo Ling Kent and Jaime FlorCruz contributed to this report.